Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch

Why I Read It: Hockey is in my blood.

Summary: The life of an enforcer in the NHL; how he got there from small town roots, and what finally brought him down.

My Thoughts: I can never look at professional hockey, a sport I love, the same way again.

I knew it when I was a kid. I wasn't smart enough to say it, but I knew it. I was sitting in the stands of a hockey game in Montreal, watching the Bruins and Canadiens, as a pre-teen. A man doing a survey stuck a microphone in my face and asked about fighting in hockey. I said "It's part of the game, it's always been there, always will be." But then, moments later, when I really thought about it, I reflected on the recent Olympic games. It boasted the best hockey I had ever seen - and by that age, it was a considerable amount - and there was no fighting. Yet there, down on the ice, Jay Miller and Lyndon Byers were squaring off with John Kordic and Steve Fletcher, and the place was going nuts.

Now that I've read this book, I'm done with fighting in hockey.

There's a simple common sense notion to it all. They're fighting! How stupid is that? We let them square off and pummel each other, often just because that's what those particular players excel at. They can't score, they can't pass, heck, some of them can't even skate that well (yes, I'm speaking relatively; they did make it to the NHL, after all). In no other team sport do we stand by and let two athletes punch the hell out of each other until one is knocked to the surface. It's just plain dumb.

And what comes of it? Derek Boogaard had wounds on his hands that reopened repeatedly. His nasal passages had been crushed so many times trainers sat on his chest and tried to wrestle his nose back into position. Shoulders, knees, back, all ached. And the head...that's where it completely unravels for me.

We're in the concussion age. We - apparently everybody but the NHL - take it seriously when a head injury occurs. Yes, if someone gets dinged on the ice and shows obvious signs of a potential concussion, he's removed from the game, most of the time temporarily. But what about the guy who gets in a fight and has his face punched repeatedly by a 250-pound man? Five minutes in the penalty box, back on the ice as soon as he can be. Gotta be tough. Can't let them see you wince, otherwise you might lose your job.

Derek suffered one hell of a concussion during his last fight, never returning to a game. He took pills, from wherever he could get them, and as a pro athlete, he had no problem obtaining them by the hundreds: sleep aids, pain killers, narcotics. He got them from team doctors and he got them from dealers. He ultimately killed himself with them.

The author paints a picture of a man-child who never fully matured, a two-time rehab failure who couldn't get past denial. His size pushed him to places he never should have gone; he wasn't talented enough to be a top level pro hockey player. But in his day and time, in his moment, enforcers were called for, and roster spots were opened up to men like him instead of goal scorers and playmakers. We're still in that age, and many of the men he bloodied his own knuckles against are still playing, being paid millions of dollars to give each other concussions, robbing each other - and their families - of the future.

The Boogaards did a wonderful thing by donating Derek's brain to the Sports Legacy Institute for study, furthering the knowledge of CTE and its effects. Had Derek lived, with the condition his brain was in, he would have suffered from dementia in the 30s. Hopefully his case pushes us out of this dark age of hockey.

Hockey, at its best, is a beautiful sport. I can't even begin to describe the feeling I get watching a well executed breakout melding into an odd-man rush culminating in a scoring opportunity. And the finality of that moment, whether it comes as a jaw-dropping save or a netted puck, is equally as exquisite. Yet, we stop it all to allow two men grab each other's shirts and pound the hell out of each other. What a waste - of a good game, and otherwise good human lives.

I hope Derek rests in peace, and I hope his family finds it, too. And I hope that someday, very soon, the NHL figures a way out of this barbaric idiocy. We see the fists fly, we see the momentum change, and we think it's all good. We don't see the dark side, until we read books like this one.

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